Deconstructing Theology #5
Alum Creek Church – January 31, 2010
I often wonder what it would have been like to be one of the 12 disciples spending a couple of years walking around the greater Jerusalem metropolitan area with Jesus. Can you imagine what that must have been like? Sometimes I wonder if Jesus was a practical jokester. I wonder if he give nooggies to Peter. Did he pull the chair out from underneath Simon before he sat down to eat lunch? Did he have a big appetite? What was his favorite food? What was he like when he hadn’t slept in awhile? Did he ever get irritable? Was he constantly pointing out nuggets of godly truth, or was he more reserved and waited for just the right moment to speak the deep truths of God?
I wonder about those things, mainly because I really have trouble seeing Jesus as fully man. But, I also wonder about those things that would have come about because he was fully God. If I was God, I don’t think I’d have much patience for a lot of things. I definitely wouldn’t have had patience for the disciples listening issues. Just a cursory glance through the New Testament shows you how difficult dealing with the disciples would have been. Here are a couple of times when, if I was Jesus, I probably would have blown my top:
– They were in a boat out on the water when a furious storm came about, and all the disciples were worried like they were going to die or something. Jesus got up and commanded the storm to go away. “Why are you so afraid?” Jesus asked (Matthew 8: 23 – 27)
– Jesus tells the disciples one of his greatest parables in the parable of the soils. He finishes telling the story and the disciples have no idea what he is talking about. He has to explain the parable to them. (Matthew 13: 10 – 23)
– Jesus was walking on the water to get out to the disciples in the boat. Peter piped up and asked Jesus to allow him to walk on the water to Jesus. He took a few steps and then began to sink. (Matthew 14: 29 – 33)
– There were a bunch of children trying to get to Jesus and sit on his lap. It was causing quite a scene, so the disciples stepped in and tried to get rid of the children. Jesus rebuked them and told them to let the children come to him. (Matthew 19: 13 – 15)
– Some of the disciples were arguing on the road who was the greatest in the kingdom. Jesus had to rebuke them and remind them of the way of the kingdom. (Luke 9: 33 – 37)
– Later the disciples saw a man driving out demons in Jesus’ name, but he was not part of the disciples. They told them to stop, but Jesus told them not to stop them. (Luke 9: 49 – 50)
– Then the disciples were not welcomed by the people of Samaria and they asked Jesus if they should call fire down from heaven and destroy them. Jesus turned and rebuked them. (Luke 9: 51 – 56)
– When Jesus was in the garden praying through the things that were about to happen, he went back to check on his disciples – three times – and they had fallen asleep each time. (Matthew 26: 36 – 45)
– When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus and take him away, Peter lunged at the soldier and cut his ear off. Jesus rebuked him and healed the man’s ear. (Matthew 26: 50 – 56)
– Peter disowns Jesus in his final hours. (Matthew 26: 69 – 75)
– Jesus faces the cross alone as his disciples all leave his side.
When you go back and consider these many gaffes of the disciples, it’s amazing,
really, when you think about, that they couldn’t just get it. I mean there he was, every day, sleeping right beside you, eating at your table, patting you on the back, teaching you the truth. Why was it so hard for them to understand? Why was it so hard for them to get it?
Really, the crucifixion was like the disciples’ final exam. They had spent the good part of three years traveling with Jesus, listening to him, and doing their best to get it. He’d been telling them all through the years, “I’m going to tear down this temple and rebuild it in three days”; “the Son of Man did not come to live but to die”; “the Son of Man must suffer a great deal of things.” And they didn’t get it. They failed the test. All of them. They didn’t get any of the questions right. It was like they got the test from the teacher and blank stares fell on each of the disciples as they read the questions. “I wasn’t expecting this.” “I was not prepared for this.” “I don’t think we covered this.”
In the face of the many shortcomings of the disciples, right there in the presence of the messiah, is the glaring theological arrogance with which we so often approach others. As if we have it all figured out. As if our understanding of God and of the Bible and of faith are ironclad. I sometimes wonder if we believe that the disciples failed their final exam at the cross, but then, by the time Pentecost came around and the Holy Spirit descended He fixed them so that they never got anything wrong again and everything was always hunky dory. If you continue to read through the Book of Acts, however, you realize that the Spirit didn’t come and immediately fix all their problems freeing them up to sit around and sing Kumbayah. People started bickering and disagreeing pretty quickly.
Last week we acknowledged that we are going to disagree with each other, and we’re going to disagree over some pretty important stuff. Actually, the Bible has a very pertinent story in regards to navigating our differences.
If you remember back a couple of weeks, we spent some time looking at Peter’s vision of the inclusion of the Gentiles. That week we talked about the challenges Peter had in accepting such a radical vision from God. Peter’s vision, however, didn’t immediately universalize the acceptance of Gentiles by the Christian movement. There was still a great deal of division and disagreement from new Christians, and this disagreement all comes to a head right in the thick of Acts.
Read Acts 15: 1 – 21.
A great debate has arisen. Do the Gentiles have to accept certain Jewish customs to become Christians or don’t they? You can make quite the biblical case that they, in fact, do need to become Jews. That was the point of pretty much the entire Old Testament! But upon hearing the words of the Gospel, these early Christians saw no demand to uphold these Jewish laws. So what do they do? How are they going to decide? Do they take a vote? All in favor of letting them in say, “Aye.” “All opposed, Nay.”
It’s probably important to note here that the important American concept of “majority rules” is not in the Bible. More times than not in Scripture, majority doesn’t rule. In this important matter of the Gentiles, it was not up for taking a vote. Instead, the leaders appealed to what they had witnessed. They didn’t get involved in abstract arguments in regards to interpreting texts, working through backgrounds, contexts, and grammatical nuances . . . instead, they told stories of what they had seen. They couldn’t necessarily explain it. They just told what they had witnessed.
This is where things get kind of tricky. A few weeks ago we talked about how one of the most difficult things in the world to say is, “I don’t know.” Yet, we decided, it was imperative. This morning we go to what is probably the most difficult thing to say, “I was wrong.” This entire group of Jews has to come to terms with the fact that they were wrong. They were all wrong.
I really like that cartoon that is on the front of the bulletin this morning, “I’m not always right, but I’m never wrong.” We may acknowledge up front we’re not always right . . . but to acknowledge that we’re wrong just takes on a more drastic tone – a more humbling tone.
What might be even more threatening to these people than the fact that they were wrong is that their parents were wrong, their grandparents were wrong. Their teachers and rabbis of youth were misled. Everything they knew . . . was wrong. And this is no overstatement. For the Jews to accept the Gentiles was a paradigm shift of monumental proportions and to accept that fact was going to take a great deal of humility.
In the passage Jim read earlier, as Paul ends his letter with several instructions on kingdom living, one of his admonitions is “Don’t put out the Spirit’s fire.” What would it look like to put out the fire of the Holy Spirit? That would be a tough question to ask, “Are you putting out the fire of the Holy Spirit?” How would you answer it? How would you know?
Let’s consider the situation in Acts 15. The Spirit was moving the people of God forward. The Spirit was revealing to the people a new way. The Spirit was making them rethink the things that had been handed down to them. This situation in Acts is quite peculiar. Paul boldly proclaims that the Gentiles do not have to become Jews in order to be saved, but, they still give them a list of “Jewish” requirements they should uphold: “abstaining from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.”
Why would they still insist on the Gentiles upholding these laws? Here, built into a revolutionizing of the way they understood things, was a sentimentality for those who were having to change. There was a built-in appreciation for how difficult it is to change your mind – to acknowledge that you were wrong.
So as we consider this example for theological division and disagreements, we’re left with a couple valuable insights:
– The leadership of those appointed in invaluable. Over and over again, the Bible cries out in support of our spiritual leaders. When it comes to difficult decisions, this is a very difficult pill for Americans to swallow. We’re used to having our own vote. We’re used to things being settled in our own terms. And yet, the Bible insists we follow our leaders.
– However, this is not a free pass for leaders to do whatever they want. They are to follow the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Working against the way we typically understand the world to operate, it is not always the voice of the majority trumpeting the way forward. Paul is clear in his admonition to “Do not quench the Spirit’s fire.” It is important that all of us, especially our leaders take a look inside and consider our openness to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. It is my fear that we are so uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the Holy Spirit that he may very well come and we won’t recognize Him and we will shun him away.
– In the midst of division and disagreement, we have a responsibility to those who are being forced to say, “I’m wrong.” We don’t get to sit back and revel in their loss and pain. Instead we are called to walk beside them, helping them understand that the way forward is better, that we understand their difficulty. “They still got their way,” you may be thinking. Yes, but their way gave way to the Holy Spirit in His time. We don’t still follow those admonitions from Acts, many of those practices are archaic and don’t even make sense any more. Acknowledging that is to take an important step forward in our quest for unity.
In all of this discussion, it is my belief that we must be sure we consider the prompting and calling of the Holy Spirit. How might he be calling us forward today? What changes does He seek in our lives? In our understanding of God?
As we set out to understand God more, as we set out to come to a deeper understanding of him in our life, consider these questions that David Dark asks.
“Will we let the double-edged indictments of the scriptures cut us to the quick creating problems in the lives we are living? Or will we enlist the words to serve only in our projects of self-congratulation, skipping the bits that question our beliefs and practices? Will we read the Bible only to reaffirm our own take on the world?”
When is the last time you said, “I am wrong.” I mean really wrong. When is the last time you were convicted from a passage of Scripture to change a habit or practice that is central to your being? When is the last time you changed your mind? When is the last time when you actually said, “I’m wrong . . . you are right”?
This business of transformation by the renewing of your mind is challenging. If you’re in it for self-affirmation and pats on the back and thumbs up and “Good job!” you better look again at your motives. If you are here to convince everyone of your opinions and positions, if you are here to talk and then listen . . . you need to do some looking inside.
God loves you and He cares for you. He wants what is best for you. And just like when you were a child, what is best for you often times is something that you would not choose for yourself. May God continue to renew your minds, may he continue to reveal your flaws and shortcomings, and may he continue to sweep you up in His grace and goodness.